The Longbow: Unveiling the Secrets of English Archers

The Longbow: Unleashing the Power of Medieval Warfare

Origins and Evolution

In the realm of medieval weaponry, the English longbow stood tall, stretching approximately 6 ft (1.8 m) in length. Scholars debate its birthplace, whether England or Wales, stemming from the Welsh bow. By the 14th century, English and Welsh warriors wielded this formidable weapon, employing it in warfare and hunting.

Dominating the Battlefield

During the Hundred Years’ War, the English longbow demonstrated its mettle against the French, etching its name in history. The battles of Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and the iconic Battle of Agincourt (1415) showcased its prowess, unleashing devastation upon the enemy ranks.

Challenges and Lessons

Yet, as time wore on, the longbow faced setbacks. At the Battle of Verneuil (1424), the ranks of longbowmen were shattered, although ultimately victorious. Their fortunes took a dire turn at the Battle of Patay (1429), where swift French-mounted charges overwhelmed them before they could establish a fortified position.

Lessons from Pontvallain (1370)

An earlier encounter, the Battle of Pontvallain (1370), highlighted the longbowmen’s vulnerability when denied sufficient time to prepare defensive positions. This reminder cautioned against underestimating the importance of strategic setup for these skilled archers.

Fading Legacy

Sadly, no longbows from the dominant era (c. 1250–1450) have survived to the present day, likely due to their wear and tear. Instead, we rely on over 130 bows preserved from the Renaissance period. A remarkable discovery occurred with the sinking of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s vessel, off Portsmouth in 1545. Archaeologists recovered over 3,500 arrows and 137 intact longbows among the wreckage, offering a glimpse into the weapon’s legacy.

Through the annals of history, the English longbow emerges as a symbol of power, strategic mastery, and the profound impact it left on medieval warfare.

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Longbow A Social and Military History by Robert Hardy CBE
Longbow A Social and Military History by Robert Hardy CBE

Tracing the Origins of the Longbow

The Longbow, a weapon of historical significance, had its name coined to distinguish it from the crossbow. The term “longbow” first appeared in a Latin administrative document from 1386, referring to bows called “longbows.” While the exact reading of the original document is uncertain, a 1444 will proved in York mentions “longe bowis” among the bequeathed items.

Origins: The Role of Archery in Anglo-Norman Warfare

The origins of the English longbow remain a subject of debate. Before the Norman Conquest, it is challenging to gauge the importance of military archery in Anglo-Saxon warfare. However, it is evident that archery played a significant role under the Normans, as illustrated by the Battle of Hastings. The Anglo-Norman descendants continued to utilize military archery, exemplified by their triumph at the Battle of the Standard in 1138.

Welsh Archery: Devastating Impact on Invaders

During the Anglo-Norman invasions of Wales, the Welsh bowmen inflicted heavy casualties on the invaders. Welsh archers became an integral part of English armies from that point forward. Giraldus Cambrensis, during his tour of Wales in 1188, noted the impressive qualities of the bows from Gwent. These bows were not only powerful for long-range shooting but also sturdy enough to withstand close combat.

The Debate: Welsh Archery and the English Longbow

Historians disagree on whether the archery employed by the Welsh utilized a different type of bow compared to the later English Longbow. There is ongoing scholarly discussion regarding this matter.

Evolution: From Shortbow to Longbow

Traditionally, it was believed that the weapon used before the 14th century was a self-bow measuring between four and five feet in length, commonly referred to as the shortbow. This bow, drawn to the chest rather than the ear, was relatively weaker. However, in 1985, Jim Bradbury reclassified this weapon as an ordinary wooden bow. He argued that longbows were a developed form of this ordinary bow, reserving the term shortbow for shorter composite bows.

In 2005, Strickland and Hardy expanded on this idea, suggesting that the shortbow was a myth, and all early English bows were a variant of the longbow.

Nonetheless, in 2011, Clifford Rogers reaffirmed the traditional case using various forms of evidence, including an extensive iconographic survey.

In 2012, Richard Wadge further contributed to the debate by conducting a comprehensive examination of records, icons, and archaeological evidence. Wadge concluded that longbows coexisted with shorter self-wood bows in England between the Norman conquest and the reign of Edward III. However, it was not until the later 13th century that powerful longbows capable of shooting heavy arrows became more common. The existence of a technological revolution at the end of the 13th century remains a point of contention. Nevertheless, it is widely agreed that an effective tactical system, involving the mass use of powerful longbows, was developed in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.

In 1295, King Edward I initiated significant improvements in organizing his armed forces, establishing uniformly-sized units and a clear chain of command. He introduced the combined use of archers launching an initial assault, followed by cavalry and infantry attacks. This technique proved successful in the Battle of Falkirk in 1298.

Tactical Advancements: Edward I’s Military Reforms

The rising importance of foot troops necessitated substantial expansion in armies. As early as the late 13th century, Edward I led armies consisting of tens of thousands of paid archers and spearmen. This marked a significant shift in recruitment, organization, and, most importantly, payment methods.

Expanding Armies: The Growing Significance of Foot Troops

The increasing importance of foot troops created both opportunities and necessities for substantial army expansions. Edward I’s campaigns witnessed the incorporation of tens of thousands of paid archers and spearmen, signaling a major change in approaches to recruitment, organization, and payment methods.

Transforming Recruitment, Organization, and Pay: A Paradigm Shift

The rise of foot troops in military strategies brought about transformative changes in the recruitment process, organization, and payment structures. Edward I’s leadership saw armies comprised of tens of thousands of paid archers and spearmen, leading to a significant shift in how military forces were assembled and compensated.

The Longbow in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

A late 15th century illustration of the Battle of Crécy.

A late 15th century illustration of the Battle of Crécy.

Decisive Battles: Crécy and Agincourt

In the annals of medieval warfare, the Longbow emerged as the arbiter of fate, shaping the outcomes of English and Welsh battles. Notably, the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, both fought during the Hundred Years’ War, showcased the Longbow’s prowess. These victories followed earlier triumphs at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 and the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333, during the Wars of Scottish Independence. However, their success waned in subsequent conflicts, as demonstrated by the Battle of Verneuil in 1424, where the Longbow’s lines crumbled, and the Battle of Patay in 1429, where they faced a charging enemy before setting up defenses. Ultimately, it was the French artillery that decided the war-ending Battle of Castillon in 1453.

Training Challenges and Mercenary Ventures

While the Longbow boasted superior speed and accuracy compared to the black-powder weapons that would later replace it, the extensive training required hindered its widespread use. Years of practice were necessary for effective deployment, with war-ready Longbows from the Mary Rose boasting draws exceeding 143 pounds force. Given the seasonal nature of warfare and the agricultural obligations of non-noble soldiers, year-round training posed a significant challenge. Maintaining a standing army proved costly for medieval rulers, leading to a scarcity of significant Longbow corps in mainland European armies. English Longbowmen, renowned for their specialized training, were sought after as mercenaries in various European countries, particularly in Italian city-states and Spain. One notable English Free Company of the fourteenth century was the White Company, commanded by Sir John Hawkwood, which comprised men-at-arms and Longbowmen. The campaigns of the formidable Hungarian king, Louis the Great, also employed Longbowmen.

The Evolutionary Debate: Shortbows and Longbows

The nature of the Longbow’s development has long been a subject of scholarly discourse. Traditionally, it was believed that prior to the fourteenth century, the weapon was a self bow, referred to as the shortbow, measuring between four and five feet in length. However, in 1985, Jim Bradbury proposed a reclassification, arguing that the shortbow was an ordinary wooden bow, reserving the term shortbow for composite bows.

Strickland and Hardy further contested this notion in 2005, suggesting that all early English bows were variations of the Longbow. In 2011, Clifford Rogers passionately restated the traditional case, presenting evidence from a comprehensive iconographic survey. Richard Wadge contributed to the debate in 2012, examining records, icons, and archaeological findings. Wadge concluded that Longbows coexisted with shorter self-wood bows in England between the Norman Conquest and the reign of Edward III, with powerful Longbows shooting heavy arrows only becoming prominent in the late thirteenth century. The existence of a technological revolution at the end of the thirteenth century, however, remains disputed.

Nevertheless, it is widely agreed that an effective tactical system employing powerful massed Longbows emerged in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. Edward I played a pivotal role in this development, reorganizing his armed forces in 1295, standardizing unit sizes, and establishing a clear chain of command. He introduced the strategy of initiating combat with archers followed by cavalry and infantry assaults, a technique successfully employed at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298.

The Changing Face of Armies

As foot troops gained significance, the expansion of armies became imperative. By the late thirteenth century, Edward I led massive armies comprising tens of thousands of paid archers and spearmen. This shift marked a substantial change in recruitment, organization, and, most notably, compensation practices.

The Longbow: Sixteenth Century and Beyond

In the ever-evolving world of warfare, longbows persevered until the 16th century. The advent of firearms altered the dynamics, with arquebusiers and grenadiers taking the stage. Nevertheless, the English Crown remained adamant in promoting archery by prohibiting other sports and penalizing those without bows. William Neade’s pamphlet, “The Double-Armed Man,” advocated dual training in longbow and pike, though firearms had clearly surpassed archery.

The Battle of Flodden in 1513 witnessed the English archers’ struggle against heavily armored Scottish nobles. However, they found success when targeting less protected foot soldiers. King James IV of Scotland, despite his armor, succumbed to arrow wounds. Flodden marked the longbow’s final significant role in British battles, even if not the decisive one. Longbows continued to serve as the primary weapons for the Tudor period’s trained bands, the home-defense militia, until their disbandment by Queen Elizabeth I in 1598. The last recorded English battle involving bows occurred during the Civil War in 1642 when an impromptu town militia, armed with bows, effectively countered musketeers lacking armor. Royalist forces maintained longbowmen, but Roundheads did not.

While longbows persist in sporting and hunting applications to this day, their usage shifted after 1642. Their draw weights decreased, and a stiffened non-bending center section replaced the continuous bend. Though serious military interest waned after the seventeenth century, intermittent proposals arose to revive their military application. Benjamin Franklin advocated for the longbow in the 1770s, and the Honourable Artillery Company fielded an archer company from 1784 to 1794. Richard Mason proposed arming the militia with pikes and longbows in 1798. Lt. Col. Richard Lee of the 44th Foot also voiced support for the longbow’s military use in 1792. Even Winston Churchill highlighted a post-Waterloo treatise within the War Office, endorsing the longbow’s accuracy, rapid discharge, and effective range over muskets.

Surprisingly, the longbow saw action as late as World War II, with Jack Churchill credited for a longbow kill in France in 1940. While the weapon was considered for use by Commandos, its actual deployment in combat remains uncertain.

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The Longbow: Unveiling the Secrets of English Archers

The Longbow: Unveiling the Secrets of English Archers

The Longbow, played a pivotal role in English warfare, notably during the Hundred Years’ War and the Battle of Agincourt.

Sources

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2023, April 6). English longbow. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_longbow

  • Ricks, G. (2016, January 23). Medieval Weapons: The English Longbow. Warfare History Network. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/medieval-weapons-the-english-longbow/

  • Wilson, T. J. (1901). ARROW WOUNDS3(3), 513–531. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1901.3.3.02a00070

  • Campbell, P. (2019, June 7). Everything that Makes the English Longbow Awesome. Archers Hub. https://archershub.com/everything-that-makes-the-english-longbow-awesome/

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